Terry and Jon Turrell dreamed of retiring early. Terry was a traveling pharmacist in southern Oregon. When other pharmacists were sick or on vacation, Terry stepped in. Jon was a builder. They worked hard, maxed out their IRA contributions and bought investment real estate. The couple decided to buy land and build a home that they could sell.
With Jon’s experience as a builder, they figured they could sell the property at a profit. The strategy worked, so they kept doing it. "We built dozens of homes and condos on speculation over a period of 15 years that we sold at a good profit,” says Jon. " We decided to develop a six lot sub-division and build the first two homes on spec."
That's when disaster struck. The financial crisis hammered real estate prices. With looming mortgage payments, the couple had to sell their two newly built homes at a loss.
Their dream of early retirement was slipping away....until they shifted their plans.
Terry and Jon sold everything. They bought a RV. They drove it through much of the United States and then down to Mexico. They figured they could retire there. The couple spent time in nine different locations, including San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Puerto Vallarta.
They decided to retire in Sayulita, a beachside town that’s a 35 minute drive from Puerto Vallarta. Terry wrote about their story in her book, Retirement Before The Age of 59. The Overseas Vote Foundation says there may be as many as 1 million Americans living in Mexico.
I understand why. In 2014, my wife and I quit our Singapore-based teaching jobs. We flew to Guadalajara before taking a 45 minute taxi ride to the lakeside town of Chapala. It’s just 5 miles from (what might be) America’s favorite retirement destination, the lakeside town of Ajijic. We rented a small home about a 2 minute walk from the bus station. It cost $350 a month. We had a fabulous view of Mexico’s largest lake.
Each morning, I ran along the mountain paths high above the town. After breakfast, we usually took a local bus to Ajijic. I took Spanish language classes. Twice a week, we joined a hiking group. I joined a writer’s club. My wife joined a kayak club. We did yoga at a centre owned by a Mexican/Canadian couple. We lived on about $1,600 a month. We enjoyed restaurant meals at least three times a week. I wrote about the region’s cost benefits, its safety, its medical benefits and its easy-going culture.
Bill Taylor, an expat with a real estate office in the Puerto Vallarta Marina, says you could spend even less. He lists the cost of living for couples who live at the Royal Pacific Yacht Club condominium development. He says costs average just $13,311 a year. His newsletter lists and answers plenty of questions about costs of living and healthcare.
International Living magazine voted Mexico the world’s top international retirement destination for 2017. They compare factors such as healthcare, cost of living and how easy it is to socially fit in. One of my former colleages in Singapore, Mark Boyer had retired there with his wife, Marianne, a couple of years before. “You’ll have to learn to say ‘no’ when people ask you to come over for dinner or go out to eat” he said, during our first week there. “This is a really social place. If you keep saying ‘yes’ you’ll soon be exhausted.” Mark was right.
Some of the couples were like Terry and Jon Turrell. They moved to Mexico so they could afford to retire early. Others were wealthy. They preferred the great weather and culture of Lake Chapala. At 5,000 feet above sea level, it doesn’t get too hot and it doesn’t get too cold. Temperatures average 72 degrees fahrenheit. Canadian snowbirds fly down for the winter. Americans who are retired in coastal areas, like Puerta Vallarta, often seek refuge in the summer, where the mountain temperatures of Lake Chapala are far more comfortable.
After spending 3 months in Chapala, Pele and I left. At 44 years old, I felt far too young to be putting down roots. We continued to travel. We checked out many of the countries that International Living lists among its top destinations to retire. We spent a month in Thailand. It was rated the 12th best place to retire. We spent a month in Vietnam. It was rated 24th. We also spent a month in Malaysia, rated the 6th best country to retire.
But Mexico was my favorite. Today, it’s even easier on the wallet than it was when I was there. The Mexican peso has fallen 40 percent over the past three years. This might not affect high tourist zones, which are often priced in U.S. dollars. But most of Mexico keeps getting cheaper.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that people’s tastes differ.
If you are thinking about retiring in Mexico, take a page out of Terry Turrell’s book. Spend time in a few different towns or cities. Don’t just fly in for a holiday and make a snap decision. The honeymoon phase might blind you. Mexico isn’t for everybody.
But there’s a reason International Living selected it as their top international retirement country in 2017. There’s a lot there to like.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.